Debussy’s piano piece “Clair de Lune” illustrates the unique whole tone style of the French composer. The title translate to “moonlight” in French. In music, tone are separated by equally spaced intervals called half steps. Sit at a piano and play all of the white and black keys consecutively to play consecutive half steps. To play whole steps, play every other key. This results in a whole tone scale. Debussy is considered a part of the Impressionist movement in music that was considered a subset of music within the Romantic Period.
This simple piece for piano was started in 1880 and published 15 years later in 1905. However, the composition was significantly revised in 1890 prior to publication. Most likely, Debussy has changed his mind about the style of the piece and wanted to improve it based on his current ability. The composition is the third movement of a larger suite called the “Suite bergamasque.”
The piano piece “Clair de Lune” is tied to the other pieces with a common motive that helps to create a sense of cohesiveness. The motif consists of five notes that move down and up in a twisting motion before descending at the end. In the third movement, the motif consists of a F, E-flat, F, E-flat and down to a D beginning in the fist and second measure. The other movements replicate these intervals on differing pitch levels. For instance, the second movement starts on a G. The first movement starts on F, but instead of moving down a whole step to E-flat, Debussy moves down a half step to E.
The complete set of movements entails four distinct pieces. The first movement includes a piece in the key of F called “Prélude.” This piece is indicative of most preludes and has a festive and energetic feel. The second movement “Menuet” involves two themes that contrast between light and playful and dark and mysterious moods. “Clair de Lune” comes in at the third movement and provides a lilting lyrical contrast to the second movement. Finally, Debussy ends the suite with “Passepied” a fast-paced dance that helps end the suite on a high note.
Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes opus 9 consist of three pieces that he completed from 1830 to 1832. Each piece has a distinct sound and form that helps to set them apart from each other. The works are dedicated to Madame Camille Pleyel and were published a year after they were completed in 1833. While the second Nocturne is by far Chopin’s most famous Nocturne, a discussion of the second one by itself would be incomplete without some mention of the other two Nocturne’s in the collection.
Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1
The first Nocturne consists of a series sextuplets that ascend and descend against a simple melody that moves in contrast to the rhythm of the bass. These melodies provide a juxtaposition of notes that complete with the triplets and create complex rhythmic ideas. The idea of placing rhythms in contrast to each other was a new concept that didn’t come into place until the Romantic Period in music. Listening to the first movement, the listener has a sense of a free, flowing and exciting adventure that requires a great deal of virtuosity on the part of the pianist. This Nocturne has a simple ABA form to it.
The second Nocturne evokes imagery of melancholy isolation and longing. Written when he was only a 20-year-old, the piece has an evocative and romantic feel that expresses a great individualism and creative expression.
The piece uses a rounded binary form and that follows an AABABAC section format. The C section functions as a code to help round off and complete the piece. When played in conjunction with the first Nocturne, the second nocturne holds its place as a more elaborate and complex work. The melody has exciting and graceful leaps that help to accent chords and bring in a sensation of a truly free and complex melody. Again, as per Chopin’s style the third movement has many characteristics of both the first and third Nocturnes. In some ways, the second Nocturne acts a development section for the robust and exciting first Nocturne. The majority of the second Nocturne maintains a passive and somber feel until finally it bursts into an emotional and evocative section that sets the stage for the third Nocturne.
Nocturne in B major, Op. 9, No. 3
The final nocturne reminds the listener of the character of the first nocturne. In this way, it ties together the first and second Nocturnes in a sort of recapitulation. Until this time it is was rare for a composer to work out such an extended set of pieces that work together to form one cohesive whole. The form is a simple ternary form with an ABA form.